We left Brewton, Alabama, on a steamy Sunday afternoon. The streets were somewhat empty. A lone cat roamed local backyards. A redheaded kid who looked suspiciously like Ron Howard kicked a rock on the sidewalk.
My wife squeezed my hand as we drove away from her hometown.
“I love you,” she said with a watery smile.
I said it back.
We’ve been saying those words a lot this past week, ever since we came here to lay my wife’s mother in the ground.
Something about funerals brings out the need to be loved. And perhaps this is why my wife squeezed my hand so tightly as we left behind the city of antique homes, potted ferns and immaculate landscaping. Perhaps this was why my wife squeezed tighter still as we loped beneath the long-armed oaks and a summer sky that was blue enough to break your heart.
Because it was all over now.
The weeping and laughing. The eating funeral cake and drinking lukewarm milk. The sobbing on the back porch until three in the morning. The unexpected moment when your wife wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, because she now realizes she’s a middle-aged orphan.
The build-up to a funeral is nothing short of theatrical. A funeral is basically a huge party wherein everyone you know attends and has a terrible time. Coordinating such an elaborate event is like dreaming up the biggest party of your lifetime and only having five days to plan it.
For a solid week, my wife’s mind had been stuck in “homegoing mode.” She had been concentrating on details like accommodations for guests, wardrobe malfunctions, pallbearers, and making sure everyone had enough calories.
But today, as we wheeled toward our Florida home doing fifty-five, we left these memories in our rear view mirror.
She tightened her grip on my hand as we left the Yellowhammer State, bound for our little house in the big woods behind the ugly Walmart. The love nest we built, long ago, tucked among the beat-up doublewides and the rusted satellite dishes.
“I love you,” she said, breaking the quiet between us.
I said it back.
Then we fell silent again.
And for some reason, I was thinking about how one of the things I like most about my wife and I is that we are not tidy people. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we’re not slobs, we take care of our stuff, and we occasionally bathe. But my wife and I are not neat freaks. And I love that.
We are the couple your mother warned you about. We are basically big kids who keep getting away with not making our bed. In fact, my wife and I can go days without making our bed. Weeks even.
Also, we have been letting piles of clean laundry mount on our kitchen table since the day we got married almost twenty years ago. Today, our clean laundry pile looks like a miniature Mount Vesuvius waiting to blow. And I’m pretty sure that beneath this mountain of garments is the dress my wife wore to our wedding.
But here’s the thing: this is our laundry pile. This disorderly life, it’s all ours. That’s why I love it. And today, it’s time to go back to living it again. Death is behind us. Life is full speed ahead.
When we blew past the “Welcome to Florida” sign, my wife and I lifted our feet and held our breath.
We always do this because my wife’s late mother would always lift her feet and hold her breath when she crossed state lines. She did this well into her old age, even when her feet and lungs quit working.
We held hands again. Because now it was all hitting us. It’s now our turn to carry on stupid traditions like this. It’s our turn to invent silly games and teach them to others. It’s our turn to start becoming the next old people. Just like it’s also our turn to live rich, full lives the way our departed loved ones would want.
When we arrived home, it was a veritable canine party. Our two dogs tackled us as soon as we turned the doorknob. The ninety-pound animals with the enormous paws and the long Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not tongues howled with delight.
In only moments my wife was sprawl-legged on the floor with two joyous animals crawling upon her, licking her forehead, knocking off her sunglasses.
I saw her eyes close tightly. I heard a big laugh erupt from her mouth. Two solitary tears rolled down her precious cheeks.
I sat beside her on the floor, immediately surrounded by animals. I joined hands with my wife. She squeezed my fingers until my knuckles hurt and my wrist popped. She had pink eyes. I had a full heart.
“I love you,” she said.
I said it back.